Tag Archives: mythology

The Venus Flytrap: Avni And Other Tigers

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There is one particular detail of the killing of Avni, the tiger, in Maharashtra last week that I keep circling back to. She was lured using a trail of tiger urine mixed with a men’s perfume, Calvin Klein’s Obsession. The scent contains synthetics that mimic civetone, which is secreted in the perineal glands of civets, and has similar effects to musk, another animal-based perfumery ingredient. Tigers find civetone irresistible; it was deployed here because earlier experiments showed that they wanted to roll themselves all over where it was sprayed, rubbing their faces into it and sniffing with visible pleasure. Essentially, Avni was lured to her death through aphrodisiac pheromones.

Avni was a “man eater”, that archaic word so colonialist in its resonance, which keeps being used in reports about her killing. It’s a word from a worldview that’s clear in its division between animal and human, but specifically Man (colonial order wasn’t the only thing built into the language). As though women or water buffaloes don’t get eaten too (both equally inequal in the hierarchy of the Kingdom of Man). The dictionary suggests that it was first used for human cannibalism (more colonial inference), later becoming used to describe animals. “Man eater” is also still in common parlance as an innuendo, used to caricaturise women who are unapologetically desirous. The fear of the desirous woman is such that she is likened to a creature that kills to devour.

But for cultures that lived or live alongside the tiger, traditionally, fear is mixed not with bloodthirst but with reverence. In the Sundarbans, the tiger deity Dakshin Rai is appeased and asked for protection, while simultaneously expected to be mercurial and voracious. In Karnataka, the tiger god is Hulideva. Naga legend holds that the first tiger, first human and first spirit all shared the same mother. Among Warli and Koli people, Waghya (meaning “tiger”) is one of the principal deities, and Waghoba is the deity of the forest at large in Maharashtra.

It bears noting that it was at the behest of the people living in the Pandharkawada divisional forest, where an estimated 13 people were killed due to tiger attacks, that Avni was shot. While the lack of adequate tranquiliser usage, the decision to kill rather than capture, and the uncertain fate of her two cubs are all worthy of questioning, that she was a threat was something that we must accept. Otherwise, what difference is there between we who live in cities and have the luxury of choosing animal-friendly diets we don’t forage for ourselves, and those who colonised centuries ago and decided that the beasts of our lands were for sport hunting and that some human lives were less valuable than their own?

To return to man-eaters and musky pheromones, there’s another possibility as to why the scent attracted Avni. It’s heartbreaking to think that she died hoping that a mate was rambling in the vicinity. Perhaps what she thought she sensed was a competitor, another tiger on the prowl for the same prey. And so she died ferocious, protective – double-edged, just the way the tiger is understood by those who know it most.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 8th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: A Neem Tree For A Neighbour

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My closest neighbour is a neem tree, and she rests her lovely-leafed branches on the glass of the window by my reading nook. This is not a forever home, but for the little while that I’m here, it’s where I plan to spend many hours. Sun slanting on the greenery, on my skin, on the pages I’m holding. This, to me, is luxury. And have you noticed over the past year or so how kuyil songs are more frequently heard around the city centre? I hear them all day now. Something is shifting towards kindness and vitality, in a way that maybe will touch us too in our conurbations, our attempted civilisations, our many cages. I hope it touches me in mine, and I strive to reach for it every day – something resembling belonging. Here in this nook, I watch as squirrels run up the branches and along the windowsill. Ours is, I think, an undemanding co-existence.

Of course, I know they are rodents. And certainly, I know that prettiness alone shouldn’t be trusted. After all, one of the most famous squirrels ever (not counting the sabre-toothed Scrat in the Ice Age films) is the vicious Ratatosk, who scampers up and down the span of the great world tree of Norse mythology, Yggdrasil. He tells the dragon chewing at the roots what the eagle in the high branches allegedly said; and then passes another falsehood to the eagle.

But I am lucky: I speak to my neighbour the neem tree directly. And sometimes in the evenings I go downstairs and circle her, caressing low-hanging leaves with my fingertips. I have a feeling that she is a tree who is good at absorbing tears.

I don’t need a squirrel messenger. In fact, I don’t need anything from the squirrels, and so I prefer another tale about them: about how the Indian palm squirrel got its stripes after being gently stroked by Rama in a gesture of gratitude. It’s a small story about tenderness within a large story mostly about the ego, and more than the story itself, it’s the memory of my father’s narration of it in my childhood that I cherish.

I was intrigued to learn that North American cookbooks, including the iconic Joy of Cooking, featured squirrel meat even up to the cusp of the millennium, with dishes such as Brunswick stew and fricassee. As recently as a decade ago, the UK’s The Guardiancalled it the “ultimate ethical” meat, as a free-range, low-fat, locally-sourced and apparently quite tasty alternate to other kinds. Locavores in the West aside, species of squirrels both small (such as the orange-bellied Himalayan squirrel) and large (such as the Malayan giant squirrel) are traditionally eaten in different parts of India. Perhaps this mix of inspirations was what made London-based chef Rakesh Nair come up with a “Rajasthani spiced grey squirrel” for Jamie Oliver.

I’m never eating these squirrels at my window, of course. They give me so much more food for thought than they could give my stomach nourishment. “Hello Aniloo,” I coo (this is my name for all squirrels). “Are you visiting me – or am I visiting you?”

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 27th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: When The Goddess Menstruates

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While so many are galvanizing resources for flood-wrecked Kerala, Kodagu and other parts of South India, a leisurely lot have been spending time and energy spreading the information that the natural disaster (even if not, technically speaking, a national disaster) has been because of the wrath of God. Specifically, that the Supreme Court case on permitting women of menstruating age into the Sabarimala temple in the Western Ghats of Kerala has invited the deluge.

For some reason, this often gets conflated into “menstruating women”, as though the Supreme Court has specifically opened the temple to women who are literally having their periods. It’s worth remembering that the exclusion of women was brought into law by the Kerala High Court only in 1991. Prior to that, women generally did not participate due to tradition, enforced by conditioning but not by law.

Does Ayyappan forbid the presence of fertile women? That isn’t for me to decide. But the misnomer “menstruating women” calls to mind exactly that image, and myths around the same. We could begin with Parvati of Chengannur in Alappuzha district, one of the worst hit in these floods. Originally built in 300 AD, the clothes of the goddess here are checked every morning for blood stains. When they are found, the idol is shifted to private quarters for the duration of her period, during which the temple also remains closed. Menstrual seclusion is a part of this temple’s ethos, as it is in most (but not all, though of this I will not speak indiscreetly). Can ritual observation be read as honouring the feminine body, or only as disdain?

Cultures around the world have traditionally regarded menstrual blood as either polluting, or possessing a power that can be used for any means and therefore best avoided, an idea so nuanced that it unfortunately creates taboos. The elaborate and beautiful, though equally violent, Mayan myth of the lunar goddess Po is one example: discovered by her father to have taken a lover, Po is killed, her menstrual blood stored in thirteen jars that contain both evil and healing. The last one contains her essence, and she is reborn.

Myths of unequivocal celebration are rare, like the one about the Sumerian mother goddess Ninhursag, who created humankind through loam and her own menses. Surely, in the rich folklores of the world, far more tales have been created: whispered in menstrual huts, at the thresholds of forbidden kitchens, in factories where women without union benefits pack unaffordable hygiene products for other women. There are no experiences that don’t find themselves woven into stories.

Which brings us finally to the most legendary of them all: the temple in Guwahati where Kamakhya is worshipped in the form of a stone yoni that is kept perennially moistened by a natural spring. Each year, she is said to menstruate during the Ambubachi Mela, coinciding with the June monsoon. Is this celebration? Of the feminine principle, certainly. But I’ve still not heard even one menstruation story that’s simply about normalization. “And then the goddess paused for a while, and drank some tea, and pondered the merits of banana fibre pads over moon cups…”

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 23rd 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Sons Of Mars

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Mars retrograde is supposed to bring the men back. The planet of ambition, sex and war – at least as per astrologers and storytellers – had backtracked not even three days when my text messages started showing signs of an accurate forecast. A retrograde is when a planet appears to be moving backwards in the sky, and its astrological effects are said to be a little askew. Seeing these effects in my inbox, I did not reply. Call it the thwarted drive of a weakened Mars or the long-term strategy of a sensible warrior. It may not be wise to pay heed to astrology, but that returning men rarely warrant replies is a permanently valid prophecy.

It so happens that Mars is also astronomically important this month, and its proximity to Earth at the end of July means its visibility increases for sky-watchers. It also has a perihelic opposition, when it’s at its closest to the sun while also directly opposite to Earth. And at the end of the month, Mars will come closer to us than it has in a decade and a half, and this will almost coincide with the longest lunar eclipse of the century.

Our planet experiences lunar eclipses a few times a year, but Mars has them almost every night, and in totality. Its two moons – Phobos and Deimos – are relatively small and frequently covered by the sun. There cannot be any total solar eclipses on that planet. Mars is the Roman name for the Greek deity Ares, god of war. His sons were Phobos and Deimos. Phobos – named for fear, from which we get the word “phobia”. Deimos – named for dread, especially before battle. The young twins accompanied their father into war. Fearsome to behold, Deimos was lion-headed, and his brother had a fiery gaze.

I looked at images of Phobos and Deimos and felt a strange and loyal smugness. They are not as pretty as our moon, who despite all her craters and caprices is complete in herself. They are misshapen, and strike me as being untrustworthy. Phobos is believed to actually be a pile of rubble with a thin crust, and is known to be collapsing internally, torn up over its tidal interactions with Mars.

The mother of the twins was Aphrodite or Venus, the goddess of love, and because of this they were also the gods of the fear of loss. Not loss itself but the fear of it. Perhaps Dread and Fear include the anxiety of sitting by an ailing loved one, or the disquiet of realising someone does not intend to call you back.

Our moon has no scientific name. She is The Moon. And surely among her many prestiges she is also the governess of loss – not the one who controls or creates it, but the one who looks over those who experience it. We are mostly made of water, more receptive to the lunar pull than to the retrogression of a distant planet.

So Mars is in retrograde and maybe the men will try to come back, but even with the occlusion of an eclipse, they should know they’re treading in a selene-centric galaxy.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 5th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Kilaeua and Kahlo

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It’s said there’s “nothing special” about the tiny green stones that appear to be raining from the sky in Hawaii – fragments of the mineral olivine, spewed in the lava from the ferociously erupting Kilaeua volcano. Even peridot, the gemstone that can be found in the mineral, isn’t considered precious because it’s relatively common. But it looks like it’d be beautiful cascading from an ear, and be comforting to hold, like any quartz. Most of all, looking at pictures of olivine, I wonder how it might catch the light. Why is it not special?

Kilaeua is the goddess Pele, who created the Hawaiian archipelago, and I’d seen her picture too. This deity of fire makes her presence known on camera, and there are several images of a womanly form emerging from the point where lava spills into the ocean, or rising in the glow from a crater. Sometimes, a face in seen in plumes, or the lava takes the shape of other body parts.

I listened to the musician Kekuhi Kealiʻikanakaʻole speaking about Pele and her present activity on Hawaii Public Radio. She says that beyond all human imagery, Pele is quintessentially the magma itself.

Kekuhi describes a profound relationship with “the Tutu”, as Pele is respectfully known, deeply connected to her body. The word she uses is “enlivening”. Her body and mind are enlivened by volcanic activity. This is more than intuition – it is connection. She expects Pele to shake, rather than predicts this. Beautifully, she tells her listeners that happening before their eyes are the kinds of events that inspired the myths themselves. “Write it down!” she insists, for they will become new songs, new dances and new chants.

Some nights ago I woke with a melancholy that made me obsess over a quote widely attributed to Frida Kahlo. I searched through a book of her letters and couldn’t find it. Then, I discovered those words weren’t hers at all, but the Mexican poet Estefania Mitre’s. Here they are: “You deserve a love that wants you dishevelled, with everything and all the reasons that wake you up in haste, with everything and the demons that won’t let you sleep. You deserve a love that makes you feel secure, able to devour the world when it walks with you, that feels your embraces are perfect for its skin. You deserve a love that wants to dance with you, that goes to paradise every time it looks into your eyes and never gets tired of studying your expressions. You deserve a love that listens when you sing, that supports your ridiculousness, that respects your freedom; that accompanies you when you fly and isn’t afraid to fall. You deserve a love that takes away the lies and brings you illusion, coffee, and poetry.”

Were the words less powerful to me because Frida’s force of character was not behind them? For a moment, yes. But then would olivine, barely a gemstone, also be less pretty if it wasn’t a symbol of Pele’s grace? That night, I let those often-stolen words comfort me, for they too felt like a small crystal on the skin, they too caught the light.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 21st 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

~ THE ALTAR OF THE ONLY WORLD ~

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Sita in a forest, loved and left behind, looks towards the night sky and sees Lucifer’s fall from grace. Inanna enters the underworld, holding her heart before her like a torch. It is not easy to bear the weight of light; wilderness takes time to turn into sanctuary. These are poems of exile, resurrection, impossible love, lasting redemption – and above all else, the many meanings of grace.

“Sharanya’s poems are, in her own phrase, a form of phosphorescence – glowing in darkness, simmering with wonder, mythic in resonance, boldly embodied, hence surprisingly spiritful, even spiritual in the finest sense of the word. They are also skeptical and reflective, tempering and enhancing the glowing flame. Riptides of Tamil hide beneath or within her honed English, for those who can hear and see.” – David Shulman.

Selected reviews, interviews & articles

“Sharanya Manivannan’s poems in The Altar of the Only World are resplendent, locking you up in their hallucinatory visions.” – Karthik Shankar, OPEN Magazine

“This is a collection that you would want to own, for its exquisite imagery, for the raw passion, and most of all for the deep emotions it will evoke in you.” – The Greedy Reader

“It doesn’t matter in the end who abandoned you – it only matters who you make of yourself in the afterlife of that love.” – Scroll (interview with Nikita Deshpande)

“You can see Venus in the sky with the naked eye some nights of the year, and she sometimes hovers by her lover, Mars, and our grandmother, the moon. There’s the traditional reading of the planet as the goddess of love, but you chase her a little more and you are unsurprised to find that she is also the goddess of war, as Inanna. And exiled from heaven, as Lucifer the morning star is. I love that complexity because it gave me so much for my poetry. I love that what has survived through the ages is a less austere kind of imagination, one that embraced the contradictory. We need more of that today.” New, Fractured Light (interview)

“Heartbreak is also a palimpsest. Each time afterwards, one retraces that journey. It’s a shadow under the fresh pain. It doesn’t always sting or throb, but it’s there.” The Wire (interview with Shreya Ila Anasuya)

“The book was born in the chthonic, and in the search for light in all its meanings — as illumination, as blitheness, as clarity. Lucifer, whose name means light-bearer, brought the light, as did Inanna, who went to the underworld to confront her shadow. What I discovered was that these were not contradictions. Stars fill this book. The sun is among them, and the one Sita thinks of often, having married into, and been banished from its dynasty. Fire, too, is a repeated motif. We have walked through fire, and the myths help us live with trauma, to accept the knowledge of how we became salamandrine.” The Hindu Business Line (interview with Urvashi Bahuguna)

 

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The Venus Flytrap: Look At The Sky

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An antlered creature is trapped between two men – we know they are men not only from their smooth torsos but also from the penises that dangle between their legs, indicating their nakedness. The man on the right carries a spear above his head; the other holds a bow drawn taut. In the distance is a smaller creature, in its pose an air of dejection. Above them all are two objects – one of them only partially drawn, or partially obscured. Bulls-eyes from which lines radiate. Two suns? A sun and a supernova, is what experts believe. The rock carving that depicts this scene has just been discovered in the Burzahom archaeological site in Kashmir. The findings suggest that this may be the oldest surviving human artwork inspired by a supernova sighting.

These findings appear in a paper in the Indian Journal of the History of Science, and only get more marvellous. Hrishikesh Joglekar, M N Vahia and Aniket Sule posit a theory that’s inclusive of both archaeology and astronomy. They date the rock carving to 4,500 years ago based on a correlation with a supernova remnant, HB9. And they offer this possibility: the hunt recorded in the carving could have been celestial, for the map of the sky at the same time of the supernova’s explosion contained a remarkably similar picture. The antlered creature is the constellation Taurus, the hunter with the bow and arrow is Orion, and to the right are a hunter formed from stars of the constellation Cetus and the second animal – apparently a canine – from the constellations Andromeda and Pegasus.

Who do we marvel more: the scientists of today who put all of this together, or the woman or man who chiselled what they saw take place in the heavens one night in the Kashmir Valley so long ago?

And I wonder what it was that artist thought as she observed this. What – or who – were the stars to her? What did she believe she was seeing?

There are always stories and there are always theories. Here’s another possibility from science: morning sunlight reflecting on ice crystals, creating the optical illusion of a second sun. And then there are myths. In the Cheonjiwang Bonpuri of Korean shamans, two suns and two moons are created to appease the Rooster Emperors. The Atyal people of Taiwan tell a story about how a hunter had to shoot down one of the two suns in the sky because people could neither sleep nor grow millets. The Mayans had many stories of rivalling suns and moons. And then there’s mythical science: Erik Aspaug’s Big Splat Theory that suggests that our moon was a fragment spun from a newborn earth’s collision with another planet, and that it maybe even had a twin, which the scientist Corey S. Powell poetically names Endymion, lover of the moon goddess Selene.

Some years ago, the graffitied words “regarde le ciel” appeared around Paris. Look at the sky. Imagine if some of this graffiti survived, and sentient beings millennia from now discovered it. What would they think we saw? Would they also know that, too often, we didn’t remember to seek at all?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 11th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.